RSS can't catch up to email yet

Posted on 5/02/2008

When I first learned about XML, I thought it sounded like a great idea. I had a hard time coming up with an excuse to use it in my earlier programming days (would have involved a rewrite, or couldn't cost-justify the implementation of that cool, new self-describing configuration system), but .NET changed all of that (for me, being a Microsoft-experienced dev) and now XML is extremely easy to work with. Even Microsoft is using it in Office 2007 for all their new file formats. For example, did you know you could rename a docx file to zip then unpack and inspect it? What you'll see is a folder hierarchy of XML files, which could be edited in Notepad if you're so inclined. If you eat XML for breakfast, you don't even need Office to create Office documents. I think we would all agree that XML has definitely arrived and is here to stay.

I mention RSS in the title because this particular XML web feed standard has become so popular it has become synonymous with "web feed" itself. The following video pretty much sums up the goals of using web feeds instead of the typical models of gathering your information from the internet.

In short, web feeds are a perfect application of the theory of XML. It makes personal blogs just as "subscribe-able" as our magazines and radio shows available at any time via podcasts. I should probably spend an entire post praising podcasts since I'm always listening to them now. Ever since my phone became my mp3 player, my car stereo hasn't been turned on (I have one of those after-market ones that plays mp3 disks, too. It always reads "Standby"). I fear this introduction was a bit lengthy, but I'm trying make everyone in my audience happy (and may it never change).

Why the negative title about RSS? My point is that even though web feeds are more popular now than ever before, the barrier of entry is still too high to participate in all of its glory. I'm sure you know plenty of non-technical computer users out there. Are they subscribing to feeds? Probably not. Last semester, I graduated with my Computer Science bachelor's degree (finally - it took me 7 years with my day job). My senior project was a Windows Mobile feed reader named FeedFly (In process of creating an open source project for this - stay tuned). During our final presentation, in a room full of technical experts and industry advisors, we asked how many of them actually subscribed to blogs (indicating they regularly use a feed reader). I would say the response was less than 10 percent, and I was one of those with a raised hand.

I created a training session on blogging for my company 3 years ago. I was able to convince one of the teams to replace their email newsletter with a blog, and boy did it take off. It's still on the first page of a Google search without having to pay any SEO "specialist" vendors (I don't like most of these - another post). In this training, I predicted that web feeds would take off once Internet Explorer 7 and Outlook 2007 started shipping with built-in feed readers. I was wrong. Once I used the Outlook 2007 RSS client, I understand why. It's nowhere near as integrated as it needs to be in order to get everyone to use it. Plus, it's not easy to work with once you have a lot of subscriptions. If you're curious what reader I use, it's Snarfer with the Bloglines synchronization feature. Oh, and Doppler for the podcasts.

What's the solution for the lack of adoption so far? The best solution would be to purchase your own domain name for hosting your blog, so you have the freedom of moving it to different hosts. Then, offer an email subscription feature for those that don't use readers. I'm sure future versions of feed readers will be much more user-friendly, and I'm still convinced it will take off. FeedBurner is one of several free services that offers email distribution. With email distribution, your subscribers will receive an email with your new posts to the feed. Now, you won't become frustrated when people get tired of opening their feed readers you set up for them so they can check if your blog has a new post.

Even though FeedBurner is quite useful for email, I see it's primary purpose as an abstraction of a feed, so the feed source can be changed independent of all subscriptions. If you didn't have this abstraction layer set up and you moved your feed to a new hosting platform, you'd have to post a request on your old feed informing your subscribers to change their subscription to the new feed address. I've seen these posts several times in the feeds I've subscribed to over the years.

Let's be honest. If you don't have more than a couple of feeds subscribed, it's not worth setting up a blog reader at all. The simple action of opening a reader is step 1. Step 1 could have been to just visit the web site instead. If you have 2 feeds subscribed, you save yourself a whole step. That's a lot of software installation or configuration just to save a step. Maybe web feeds will never take off because of this. They only offer a significant advantage to someone that is spending too much time looking around for updated information.

No comments:

Post a Comment